Esperanza Spalding Live at Central Park Summerstage

Ernest Barteldes By

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Esperanza Spalding
Central Park Summerstage
New York, New York
June 28, 2009

The Oregon-born bassist and vocalist seems to have found her voice as an entertainer. At least comparing what we saw last Sunday with her performances at the Jazz Standard earlier this year, one could notice that Spalding has developed a fully-fledged stage persona that in turn helped elevate her music to much greater heights.

Casually dressed in jeans and a tan T-shirt, Esperanza Spalding took the stage backed by a solid band formed by Leo Genovese (piano/rhodes), Otis Brown III (drums) and Ricardo Vogt (guitar) with a swinging tune whose lyrics explained what jazz means to her: a mix of sounds that translates as "the voice of my people." She followed that with a mostly instrumental tune that showcased the musicians' individual talents, including an extended solo from her on the upright bass.

Without interrupting the groove, Spalding switched to an electric fretless Fender Precision bass as the band moved into a more progressive/funk mode that was well received by the many fans who were there for Ledisi, the evening's top-billed performer.

One of the most breathtaking moments of the set came with her very personal tango-like rendition of Nina Simone's "Wild is the Wind," played solely with piano, bass and drums. It was a rare opportunity to see her playing with a bow. The song itself led to much open improvisation, and Spalding did a lot of it both on her bass and also by scatting around the melody.

She played very few songs from her breakthrough disc on Heads Up Esperanza (2008)—they included "Body And Soul" and "Precious," the latter being a soulful, funk-laden original that Spalding cleverly used to get people to their feet. Aware that the next act would be a highly rhythmical one, she made sure that the audience would not forget her. The impression was so great that she came back for an encore (something that almost never happens in afternoon concerts at Summerstage), closing with a wordless samba, when she tried to get the audience to sing with her...until she began scatting. But at least everybody was able to follow her on the chorus.

Esperanza Spalding might just be the kind of artist who will help bring jazz back to younger, more mainstream audiences thanks not only to her enormous talent, but also her charm and showmanship. Quite possibly, the audience at Central Park saw the next great star of jazz-fusion before their eyes. They just don't know it yet.

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